Tough work ahead: Former champions eye varied paths toward NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10 DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (June 14, 2005) -- It's June, which means the competition in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series garage is heating up along with ...
Tough work ahead: Former champions eye varied paths toward NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (June 14, 2005) -- It's June, which means the competition in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series garage is heating up along with the temperatures.
Here's a more accurate barometer: As the series prepares for this week's stop at Michigan International Speedway, the fact four former series champions are battling to get into the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10 testifies to the ever-rising level of week-to-week competition.
Fifteen races into 2005, six former series champions and last year's Raybestos Rookie of the Year have some work to do to make the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup." They are: Jeff Gordon (four-time champion), Tony Stewart (2002), Kurt Busch (2004), Dale Jarrett (1999), Bobby Labonte (2000), Matt Kenseth (2003) and Kasey Kahne (2004's top rookie).
The bumps in the road have ranged from untimely DNFs (did not finish), to sheer bad luck and mechanical and set-up woes. Fluctuations in luck and performance are part of a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup season, but these drivers certainly have their sights set on a higher goal.
Here's what's facing them:
• Following race No. 26 at Richmond International Raceway, the top 10 and any driver within 400 points of the leader are eligible to compete for the championship in the "Chase" -- the season's final 10 races.
• Former champions, of course, prefer to be solidly entrenched in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10, and of the aforementioned group, Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) and Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) are the most comfortable -- in ninth and 10th place, respectively, in the point standings heading into Sunday's Batman Begins 400.
• Former champions who would welcome a boost are Busch (No. 97 Sharpie Ford), who's 11th in the standings; Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford), who's 14th; Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge), who's 19th; Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford), who's 24th; and Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet), who's 29th.
Jarrett's boost may come at Michigan. He's stout there, with four wins, 15 top five and 20 top-10 finishes at 36 career starts at the 2-mile oval; his last victory was in August 2002. It's also the site of his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup win, in August 1991. And Jarrett finished third in both Michigan events last season.
"I think the big thing for us is that we're taking a brand new car this weekend," said Jarrett, who will work his third event with interim crew chief Bill Wilburn. "It isn't rebuilt or re-worked -- it has been built from scratch. I think the chassis shop started working on this car the week after Richmond, so I think more than anything that will give us a little better idea where we are as far as aero and handling elements are concerned this weekend."